By Mark Bowling
BRISBANE teacher and missionary Sarah Bunting believes her love of the Church and the words of Pope Francis are guiding her next big challenge.
She has started raising money to send 15 youths from Alotau in Papua New Guinea to World Youth Day in Poland in July.
Two years ago Sarah, a woman with a zest for life and a deep well of enthusiasm, joined the Missio Ad Gentes in Alotau, working and teaching amongst the village poor.
She stepped in to the harshness of village life, including poor health, unemployment and the ravages of drought.
“It would be a gift of mercy for some of these young people to go to World Youth Day – an experience for their lives, their families and the entire Alotau community,” Sarah said.
“They will be exposed to other cultures, to the larger world and a universal church to which they belong.
“They will join hundreds of pilgrims from Australia and embark on a spiritual pilgrimage full of prayer, sacraments and sharing of common experiences of other young Catholics.
“And they will hear first-hand the message to young people from Pope Francis.”
Sarah’s fundraising venture and her mission work in Alotau was inspired by a message of evangelisation from Pope Francis.
“It was the Holy Father’s words: ‘the church must step outside herself. To go where? To the outskirts of existence, wherever that may be, but she must step out’,” she said.
And her own experience at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993 was also a life changing moment, which she would like to share.
“Pope John PauI spoke to the huge crowd of pilgrims. He said: ‘I love you.’,” she said.
“I felt forgiveness. It touched me and was a memorial.
“It was a treasure that has stayed with me.
“I hope others can have this gift of mercy.”
Sarah has a long connection with mission work.
She grew up in a missionary family in inner Sydney.
It proved to be a foundation for her faith, but also a big test.
“As a young adult I left the Church completely for a few years, disillusioned with many things, judgemental about many things in the Church and was in search of my own answers to many deep questions within me,” she said.
“I had a lot of trouble trying to continue at university because I just had a deep rebellion in myself against everything, especially all the contradictions and sufferings I saw in the world around me.
“At this low point in my life, however, I was still connected to the Church through my family and my parish community and during this period of emptiness and lack of meaning, it was through this community that I gradually started to see that the Church really loved me through real people – my priest, my family, my community, and I slowly re-entered the Church more deeply and began a journey of faith more earnestly, in a different way from that of my younger years.
“I then completed my teaching qualification and began working as a secondary school teacher.”
Life in Alotau has thrown forth many challenges.
It is strikingly beautiful, but harsh at the same time, with the vast majority of the people living in poverty.
There are many makeshift settlements with no power of running water and only small three walled wooden huts, with many people sharing a single dwelling.
“The tropical storms are sometimes quite severe and the drought this past year has had devastating effects on many of the local people,” she said.
“Some of the young people (especially girls) often have to miss school or miss out on activities after school because of their duties in the home – carrying water, cooking, cleaning, cutting grass with machetes, which they even do on a rotation bases at school to keep their school grounds looking immaculate.
“There are high rates of rape and domestic violence, TB, and HIV. Many die from malaria still.
“Mandatory schooling was only introduced in 2015.”
Daily life for Sarah includes morning prayer at 6.30am followed by morning schooling.
She provides herself as a volunteer teaching English, social science and religion.
She visits patients in hospital – there are no meals provided for patients – and helps the Alotau youth prepare readings and songs for the weekly celebration of the Liturgy.
There are also trips to surrounding villages, accompanying a priest to celebrate Mass.
“It is a call to mercy – the mission provides me with a tangible opportunity to respond to Christ’s call to be merciful as God has been merciful with me,” she said.
“I find it impossible at times, but God provides the grace to make it possible.
“I think perhaps God is helping me to learn to persevere amongst difficulties and in situations that often appear hopeless or too difficult to overcome.
“To learn to entrust everything to him and to just seek the grace to see his will each day and in each event, person or circumstance that I’m presented with.”
There are lighter moments on mission, which light up Sarah’s smile, especially Saturday soccer matches which bring together the entire community.
“Our Sacred Heart women’s team had women (including myself) from about 16 right up to women in their fifties – we came third in the competition this year, despite the handicap of having two dim dims (white people) on the team,” she said.
“The most embarrassing moment of my life was playing in that team as the entire town were openly laughing their heads of at the two white ladies hopelessly trying to keep up on the field, but it was a great way to break into the community as we were notorious in town after that – I think they were a little intrigued at how we managed to be so shameless.”
Some members of the Sacred Heart soccer team are among the Alotau youth that Sarah hopes will accompany her to World Youth Day, in Krakow, Poland in July.
For donations Sarah can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org